An Indian Singer Stirs Mubarak Nostalgia for Egyptians

The popular Abhijeet Bhattacharya bears a striking resemblance to the late president toppled following protests in 2011

An Indian Singer Stirs Mubarak Nostalgia for Egyptians
Hosni Mubarak, left, and Abhijeet Bhattacharya, right. (Mubarak image: Khaled Desouki/AFP via Getty Images; Bhattacharya image: Sujit Jaiswal/AFP via Getty Images)

In January, the Indian singer Abhijeet Bhattacharya was invited as a special guest on an episode of “Indian Idol,” the popular singing competition television series. Bhattacharya is one of the playback singers who lend their voices to actors in Indian movies. He has sung some of the most iconic songs of the ’90s and 2000s in Bollywood and is popularly known as superstar Shah Rukh Khan’s voice, having rendered it in over 30 songs. Those unaware of the tradition of playback singing, even in India, have often been confused because Bhattacharya’s voice perfectly fits Khan’s persona — it seems as if Khan himself is singing.

With film music a predominant component of pop music in India, playback singers in the country enjoy popularity similar to that of pop stars in the West. Hence, it is not unusual for playback singers to be invited to judge on music shows, which often also pay tribute to singers, composers and actors in the film industry. The appearance on “Indian Idol” was business as usual for Bhattacharya. Through videos of the episode on social media, Indian fans indulged in some nostalgia as the contestants sang some memorable songs of the veteran singer.

However, one of them went viral and propelled Bhattacharya to a different kind of stardom — and all the way to Egypt. For Indians, there was nothing extraordinary about it. Bhattacharya was giving feedback to a contestant, who had sung one of his popular songs from Khan’s iconic romantic-musical 1995 film “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge” (“The Brave-Hearted Will Take the Bride”). However, what Egyptians saw was that the Indian singer bore a striking resemblance to the late Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, making him a viral sensation in the country.

People have been flooding the comments section of his videos across social media platforms. “Hey ex President of Egypt, what are you doing there?” said one. “Please India bring back our president,” said another, “your people are waiting for you.” A third person asked, “Aren’t you going to visit Egypt soon?”

That Mubarak died four years ago hasn’t stopped the enthusiasm for the former president. Another joked that India had successfully cloned Mubarak. Some people also suggested that Bhattacharya has the same voice and style of walking. “My social media has been flooded with comments in the last three weeks,” Bhattacharya told New Lines in a phone call from Mumbai. “Initially, I thought I was being spammed. Even though I cannot understand Arabic, I am overwhelmed with the love and response from the entire Arab community.”

His two sons, who are fans of footballer Mohamed Salah, had discovered that the singer had gone viral in the country.

“My understanding is that people feel that after the former leader died, he came to India and took refuge in my body,” Bhattacharya said. “So they are apologizing to him and want him to return to help them solve the problems the country has been facing, such as rising inflation, and that they will listen to everything that he says.”

The singer has been getting invitations from travel companies to facilitate his trip to Egypt. “Someone even invited me to inaugurate their new restaurant,” he said.

Ever since Mubarak’s ouster in a 2011 uprising that ushered in other popular movements across the region in what became known as the Arab Spring, Egyptians have been ambivalent about his legacy. When the ailing president was put on trial a few months after he was removed from office, small groups of protesters gathered outside the courthouse with signs proclaiming: “We are sorry, Mr. President.”

That sentiment has grown over the years as the uprising was followed by Islamist rule and a military coup that brought strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power — along with a host of oppressive measures and clampdowns on speech that exceeded Mubarak’s tenure, broad economic hardship, the currency’s collapse and a loss of Egyptian prestige in regional politics as the country became increasingly beholden to the largesse of its wealthy Gulf neighbors.

These hardships, as with other countries in the region that witnessed both peaceful and violent uprisings, left Egyptians wondering whether they might have been better off having done nothing at all in 2011. It has also helped promote a cottage industry of rose-tinted social media pages that glorify the country’s past, even as far back as the monarchy that was overthrown in 1952. This nostalgia for the supposedly good old days has partly fueled Egyptian social media’s fascination with Bhattacharya and the (half-)joking demands that India send back Mubarak’s incarnation.

And Bhattacharya does have an uncanny resemblance to Mubarak — from his square facial features and prominent forehead to his hairstyle.

The resemblance triggered an avalanche of stories and short videos on social media and in local media outlets, giving prominence in particular to Bhattacharya’s fandom of Salah and his pandering to the Egyptians who had suddenly taken notice of him, including a pledge to dedicate a song in Arabic to the country. The responses on social media were mostly humorous. While some lamented the country’s suffering in the years since Mubarak’s ouster, others delighted in the resemblance. One Instagram video dubbed a Mubarak speech over a Bhattacharya video, with one of the commenters joking: “Now that you have a new look, please come back. Without you we’re like orphans living with an evil stepmother.”

Given the popularity of Bollywood and Khan in the Middle East, he is open to the idea of doing a concert in Egypt.

“People recognize the songs but they now realize who the singer is as we mostly remain in the background … but let’s see if I get to visit the country,” the singer said.

In the past decade, however, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has amassed power, politics and growing expressions of staunch nationalism have increasingly divided people, especially in the Hindi film industry, which has historically been a melting pot of all religions, regions and cultural backgrounds. People have started questioning the collaborations between Pakistani artists and Bollywood in the wake of terror attacks in the country. In addition, interfaith marriage between actors has come under public scrutiny, as has the fact that the industry has been dominated by Muslim actors for the past three decades.

In this highly polarized political environment, Bhattacharya has often courted controversy because of his disapproval of Pakistani artists in the industry and offensive remarks he has made against Muslims, who, as in Pakistan, are the overwhelming majority in Egypt. He was once suspended from X (then Twitter) for making sexist remarks against an Indian activist. Celebrities who once had to rely on newspapers and magazines to air their views can now share them directly on social media, which often lands them in trouble. How Bhattacharya’s new Muslim fans might react when they discover his controversial comments is still to be seen.

At the time of writing, the singer has shared his happiness at going viral as Mubarak’s doppelganger only through a post on Instagram, where he placed his photo alongside Mubarak’s and the first line of one of his popular 1994 songs, which roughly translates as “we both are different and unique.” How else Bhattacharya will respond to his sudden popularity in Egypt will be interesting to follow.

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